The Importance of Teacher Professional Development

The Importance of Teacher Professional Development
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Earlier this month, the Senate introduced their bill to reauthorize the Enhancing Education Through Technology Act of 2001 -- The Achievement Through Technology and Innovation Act (ATTAIN). ATTAIN builds upon the successful education technology programs that began with No Child Left Behind and focuses more on systemic school redesign through the innovative use of technology. I am pleased to see that there is an increased focus on teachers and funding for sustainable and ongoing professional development.

As a former teacher I know firsthand how important it is to have the ability to stay current and utilize the most up to date information. When I was teaching, I had opportunities to attend well developed and thoughtful workshops on how to transform teaching and learning. Sadly, the enthusiasm engendered by the workshops waned when I returned to the classroom and the reality of the thousands of other things that had to be done. It was hard as a young teacher to generalize from what I learned at the workshops, and I repeatedly found that I had just enough knowledge to introduce some of the strategies, but not enough to switch gears when I ran into a glitch. Because I had no follow-up from the courses or on-going support from colleagues or mentors, I would look back months later only to realize that I had been unable to implement anything I learned.

Research shows that I was not alone. A stand-alone workshop has less than a 5% chance of actually changing teacher practice in the classroom. However, if you add on-going and embedded professional development, provide professional learning communities where teachers interact with their colleagues, and ensure on-going support from coaches and administrative staff, the chance of really affecting teaching and learning increases dramatically -- to nearly 90% (Joyce and Showers, 2002).

Twenty or even 10 years ago, accomplishing these professional development opportunities may have seemed impossible, but the advent of online learning and Web 2.0 tools in schools makes this transformation possible. Other professions like medicine, law, and business utilize the potential of technology to support on-going training, and schools across the country are beginning to see the potential of using technology to continually build skills in teachers and administrators. However, the key is not to just recreate the occasional workshop, but rather to use the power of technology to allow teachers to connect with experts, teacher mentors and coaches, and other colleagues over time and space, and thereby integrate professional development into teachers' day-to-day experiences.

For example, Alabama's Chilton County Schools, Elmore County Board of Education and Marengo County Board of Education have entered into a partnership to establish a technology mentoring program that facilitates more teacher training and collaboration on technology embedded projects. As a result, teachers report that students are becoming increasingly proficient in acquiring the scientific knowledge base needed to master course content, and science teachers report that students are better prepared for and more attentive in class. Additionally, student attendance has improved and grades are improving.

By using online resource hubs and other tools for collaboration, i.e. blogs and discussion boards, and including virtual or in-school coaching and mentoring, schools, districts, and states are beginning to see gains in teaching quality and student achievement. The greatest successes are seen with professional development that includes high-quality content, is tailored to the needs of students, takes advantage of the assets of technology, and is embedded in professional learning communities to enable teachers to actively participate.

We owe it to our teachers, students, and our nation to ensure that our teachers have the training and on-going support they need to prepare students for the 21st Century.

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